The Art of a Lethal Deal: Trump’s Offer to Saudi Arabia


The president offered the Saudis a lot of weapons on his trip to Riyadh. Can he deliver?

President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was a triumph of low expectations. In contrast to the Obama administration’s poorly attended Camp David summit that convened Gulf Cooperation Council leaders (or sought to), Trump basked in the glow of approving Arab leaders and their publics. Indeed, there were more leaders who wanted to attend than were able. Sudan’s president, the indicted war criminal Omar al Bashir, was compelled to cancel his attendance to spare American embarrassment.

One aspect of the trip that nearly every press report discussed was the conclusion of a multi-billion dollar arms sale from the United States to the Kingdom. The estimates of the deal ranged from $110 billion to over $350 billion.  As always in these matters, definitions and timelines make a big difference.  But make no mistake, the arms deal reported is the largest ever to be concluded by the United States. Can Trump deliver what he has offered?

A closer examination reveals that the offer in Riyadh is more the “art of packaging” than the “art of the deal.” When the U.S. government sells weapons to a foreign country, it does so through a rather complicated process called Foreign Military Sales (FMS). This program is run under State Department authorities, and is designed to ensure U.S. laws are followed and that the customer receives a full capability, not just equipment. Instead of just weapons, the client receives a “case” that includes everything needed for the lifespan of the weapon. For example, an FMS case will contain not just a major weapons system (say an airplane). It will also have manuals, training, spares, transportation of the equipment, and everything else needed to operate the weapon for its life cycle save fuel and ammunition.

This process is expensive to the client, but this reflects the true cost of operating modern weapons. It is an inherently open and honest way of doing business. And, if the value of an FMS case for Saudi Arabia or most other countries is above $14 million, then Congress has to be notified and given the opportunity to stop the sale. The one time this was tried — in the 1980s with Saudi AWACS — President Ronald Reagan went to the mat with Congress and the sale went ahead.

Weapons that Can be Sold vs Weapons that Might be Sold

Trump offered the Saudis some equipment that has cleared Congressional hurdles, and other equipment that Congress can disapprove. Congressional approval for the second group may take some time. What are the values of each package?

Recently notified equipment sales to Saudi Arabia show the U.S. government — mostly the Obama administration — has already obtained Congressional clearance to offer $23.7 billion worth of equipment to Saudi Arabia. Notably, all but one of these sales (a $500 million tethered aerostat program) were proposed during the Obama administration.

The rest of the equipment Trump has offered could be denied by Congress. The total amount of these weapons could be as high as $86 billion. Trump reportedly offered major weapons systems such as the Theater High Altitude Air Defense System (THAAD), which will be the largest non-U.S. buy at $13 billion for seven batteries, and about $3.5 billion for upgraded and new Bradley fighting vehicles.

Historically, one major Congressional brake on arms sales to Saudi Arabia has been America’s policy to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” In my experience, working on the $60 billion Saudi F-15 and Saudi National Guard aviation sales, qualitative military edge was the most frequently raised Congressional concern. As such, Congress applies more scrutiny to Saudi weapons even if they have already been approved for sale to other Arab countries. THAAD, for example, has already been approved for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar: these are small countries which are further from Israel and will not degrade Israel’s military edge. Saudi Arabia is different. It’s bigger, it’s closer, and it may provoke Congressional opposition.

There is no evidence Congress has been consulted on the larger, $86 billion group of weapons. Some of these weapons systems, such as the THAAD radar, have the capability to be used effectively against Israel. Similarly, press reports have noted that the offer includes a substantial amount of air delivered munitions, which the Saudi Air Force has been using to diminishing effect in Yemen. There is growing disapproval in the United States of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and there have been calls in Congress to stop selling weapons to the Saudis.

The Big Question: Sustainment

The remainder of the reported amount — about $240 billion — is reported to be sustainment costs over the next ten years. This is really just an estimate of what the United States can expect the Saudis to spend on equipment upgrades, overhauls, and replenishment. This number is presumably based on historical practice, and initially seems high. However, the rule of thumb for a recreational boat owner is to plan on spending 20 to 25 percent of purchase price annually on maintenance and upkeep – the estimate of $240 billion falls right within that range. Military equipment is constantly developing, and the Saudis will want to upgrade with new avionics, software, and other technology as soon as it becomes available.

So, the numbers break down this way:

  • $23.7 billion is what Trump can offer that he can deliver without Congressional action.
  • Around $87 billion is what Trump can probably deliver if Congress (particularly supporters of Israel) doesn’t disapprove.
  • $240 billion is an estimate of what sustainment, training, and upgrade costs will be over the next decade.

Those of us who worked in arms sales will conclude that, of the total amount reported, President Trump really only has the power to promise $23.7 billion. However, we are creatures of the swamp. The bigger figure ($110 to 350 billion) is what will be reported and — more importantly — the bigger figure is what will be welcomed in Saudi Arabia. The steak may come later, but for now the sizzle dominates the headlines. And that, my friends, is the art of the deal.


David Des Roches (twitter @dbdesroches) served in various positions in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1996 until 2010.  He is currently an associate professor at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University.  A 30 year veteran of the Army and Army Reserve, he also received an MA in War Studies at King’s College London, which he attended as a Marshall Scholar. He is a graduate of the Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management, which is the Ranger School for U.S. government weapons sales – both really suck but are good for you.  His comments are his own and do not represent any government body or institution.